When we fly, what is it that causes the trouble? Simple. Our sense of self comes apart. When it does, we go into near-panic, panic, or even terror. Whether on a plane or on the ground, coming apart feels like doom or like death. Depending upon the degree, we can’t think in a balanced way, or we can’t think at all.
Why do we come apart?
We come apart because we do not have enough inside to hold our sense of self together. Freud said it has to do with loss. He listed three versions:
loss of love of an important person in our life
loss of an important person in our life
loss of ability to function
The first two have to do with being terribly alone. The third one probably implies being alone and then adds inability to function to being alone. In any case, we feel alone, lost and hopeless. We see no options.
These feelings may too intense for us to experience while SIMULTANEOUSLY maintaining a sense of self. It is as if there isn’t enough glue to keep the self together.
What constitutes “glue” anyway?
The “glue” is relational, and it is conceptual. It is our collection of memories of moments in which there was empathy, understanding, and a feeling of connection.
How does this “glue” hold us together?
The “us” we are talking about is the concept we have of who we are and what we are. This concept is informed by how people relate to us. Relationship has a way of telling us about ourselves. Empathy tells us another person shares what we are feeling. Understanding tells us another person shares what we are thinking. It tells us that, in their eyes, we are valuable.
“Glue” is knowing that a connection is available with another person so that what you are thinking and feeling can be shared with another person. It is being able to count on that.
Then what is “anti-glue”?
“Anti-glue” involves absence of relationship. Certain emotions can flood in, and dissolve the “glue” that holds us together. Psychiatrist James Masterson lists six emotions of this type:
- anger and rage
- fear and terror
- guilt and shame
- passivity and helplessness
- emptiness and void
Think of being alone, or think of being with others who seem to have little or no reality that thoughts and feelings go on inside you. Or, if they do know your feelings, they don’t care. This means you don’t count; you are not valuable. You are, instead, disposable.
We develop a sense of self through interaction with other people.
To develop a well-glued sense of self, good interactions with others is key. The people we interact with during formative years must – themselves – have a sense of self. They must interact with us in a way that recognizes each of us as a separate people, but it is separateness that can be bridged.
That may sound simple, but in many families, the parents do not fully realize their children have minds of their own. Or, if they do sense their children have minds of their own, the parents may regard that as a problem, and attempt to control the children’s minds.
We maintain a sense of self by maintaining orientation and relationship.
We maintain orientation – physically – by keeping track of where we are. It is as if we have a GPS (global positioning system) built inside. We have a mental map of where we on that mental map. If we are in a house, we have a mental floor plan of the house. We know where we are on that map and which way to go to get from one room to another.
We maintain orientation – psychologically – by keeping track of time. We have a sort of internal clock, and we can update it by noticing the quality of daylight, versus darkness. Or, we can check the time on a watch or clock.
When we are with other people, we sense the relationship. But when alone, we maintain a sense of relationship between the concept of who we are, and the concept of who others (who are important to us) are. Just as we need a floor plan of the house we are in, and where we are in it, we need a concept of people who are important to us and where we fit in with them.
A sense of the people who are important to us is maintained within ones mind. We sense consistent support of us when we are engaged in what is in our best interest.
A sense of the people who are important to us is either not maintained mentally, or we do not sense consistent support for what is in our best interest.
Here is where it gets a bit tricky. In our families, it is often the case that the people we rely on to strengthen us are the same people who undermine us. All in all, this means that most of us do not have the psychological resources we need. We try to make up for this in various ways. We try to find relationships which give us additional strength; but often these — like the ones we had in our early development — both strengthen and undermine.
All it takes for us to come apart is for a person who is important to us to say – or do – something reminiscent of what was said – or done – years ago which back then undermined us. When that happens, the person in the present and the person in the past form a unit. We generally do not recognize this uniting of the two, and the person in the present takes on whatever emotional baggage we have with the person from the past. The revenge we wanted to take as children, but couldn’t because we were dependent, wells up, and we are tempted to take it now, in spades to make up for the delay!
To head off coming apart: control, escape, avoidance
When we do not have enough inside (in the form of glue) and outside (in the form of active support) to help us stay on track doing what is in our best interest, we need some way to compensate. We compensate in various ways. Three important ways are:
- control: control of situations we are in and people we relate to
- escape: maintaining a way out if things get difficult
- avoidance: reducing the challenges we face.
Some of us make sure situations and people stay within our control. And, if things still get out of control, we want to be able to distance ourselves or to escape. If we can’t adequately do this in the world at large, we may decide to stay home. We term being housebound by fear and anxiety, agoraphobia.
To grow a healthy sense of ones self, a sense of ones self that will stand up to the challenges of living (flying being just one), we need to be able to SIMULTANEOUSLY experience what is going on AND a sense of self.
That sounds simple, but many people fail to do that. When experience gets too big, too intense, it overwhelms their sense of self.
When flying, anxiety may becomes intense. Feelings take over. All that is experienced is the feelings; our orientation is lost; our sense of relatedness to others is lost, and self is threatened with being overwhelmed.
Let’s go back to the beginning; our sense of self develops through good interaction with others which is built inside so it is always available to us as a source of strength.
In SOAR, we add strength by finding a moment in which there was a good interaction with another person, a moment in which you and another person indeed felt a sense of empathic communication. That moment is relived as if it is happening now, and then, we recall (just for a moment) a flight situation and instantly shift our focus fully back to the moment of connectedness.
What does this do? It makes you stronger. It helps you maintain a sense of your self when challenged by intense feelings.
Understanding how important links are.
To understand how important links are, consider the physical connection between mountain climbers. Climbers link themselves together by rope. Before one climber moves, the others on the rope secure themselves to the mountain so they can support the climber who is moving in case of a slip or a fall.
Not just mountain climbing, but everything we do involves some risk. Some things involve physical risk. Some involve financial risk. Or, there may be only emotional risk, such as risk of failure, ridicule, shame or guilt. In a moment, we will see that – if we grew up in an emotionally unhealthy family – almost every action we take in our best interest will produce anxiety, or even panic.
We all understand external support. What we don’t so easily understand is internal support. Internal support – support that is solidly built in – can be more important that external support. Though external support has to be arranged, built-in support is always there. Though external support involves logistics, built-in support is transportable.
Family and secure attachment
In an emotionally healthy family, there is support when a family member takes action which is in his or her best interest, even if it means physical separation from the family. The links which connect family members are built-in. When family members are linked internally, external links are less important. This means physical presence – though desired – is not essential. Family members can go anyplace, or be anyplace without causing emotional upheaval in the family, because the psychological connections built inside remain no matter where the family members go.
Family and insecure attachment
In an unhealthy family, some (if not all) of the members do not have adequate built-in links with others in the family. Since links are physical, physical presence is necessary for emotional regulation and to prevent feelings of abandonment. The family attempts to prevent any member from taking action which means physical separation from the family, regardless of whether that action is in the member’s best interest or not.
Though the umbilical cord between the mother and the infant was cut, it was replaced by an emotional umbilical cord between the child and the parent. Though all links are important, parent-child links need to be psychologically supporting, not physically limiting.
I have long thought of anxiety disorders in this way. It is as if there is an umbilical cord connecting the person with home base (or people at home base), and whenever the person ventures away from home base, the umbilical cord becomes stretched. If the person ventures too far from home base, the umbilical cord threatens to break. That threat results in panic!
This is because, in an unhealthy family, family members are emotionally dependent upon the physical presence of others. Though this may look like love, and though this may be called love, it may not be love at all. Examine it for yourself. Does the family member who is resisting your doing what is in your best interest care about your best interest? Does this person know or care about your inner experience (or even know your inner experience exists)? Is this person reliably interested in your feelings, and your goals?
Miscellaneous Points While Discussing Family Relationships
Sexuality. In the emotionally unhealthy family, sexual activity may remain taboo for the single adults in the family, since links of a sexual nature can be powerful, and since they are – hopefully – with a person outside the family, sexual links can draw a member away from the family.
Devotion. A family member can point to his or her devotion. Devotion can, of course, be genuine, but devotion can be the case because the person does not have the emotional horsepower to live their own life, and that attaches himself or herself to someone.
Differences. Not every child in a family is called upon to be the one who stabilizes a parent. A parent may need to emotionally cripple only one child if one child is sufficient to service the parent’s emotional needs.
The unhealthy family maintains emotional dependence. If a family member (upon whom another family member is dependent) wants to move away for a better job, get more education, or get married, an unhealthy family is likely to engage in sabotage. When a family member tries to go ahead to do what is in his or her best interest, anxiety – perhaps panic – develops.
When a family characteristically stands in the way of a family member’s acting in his or her best interest, the family member may develop what some call abandonment depression. Abandonment depression is a lonely experience. It feels like no one understands. Typically, others tell you you have no reason to feel what you feel.
If this is how you feel, or felt, in your family, find a therapist to talk it over with.
How does this play out in fear of flying?
Fear of flying develops in what may look like a healthy family. But if one looks closer with an expert eye, in almost every case, things are not as they seem.
When one has grown up in a family that does not support its members in doing what is in their best interest, the simple act of making a decision causes anxiety. Asking for support – emotional or physical – can cause anxiety, or rejection.
A person who has grown up in a healthy family will have no difficulty making a decision about taking a flight. The needed internal support is there because, over the years, the family has supported each member – emotionally – in making and following through with mature decisions.
The opposite is true when one has grown up in an unhealthy family. There is limited internal support, because over the years, the family has not supported mature decisions when physical separation is involved.
Years ago, I was working with a singer in a popular group with plans to go on tour in Europe. The singer’s mother had said to her, “What will I do if you are in Europe and I have a heart attack?”
In an unhealthy family, having empathy for family members who cling and promote dependency is a problem. Failure to have empathy for a family member, such as the mother who wanted to hold her daughter – the singer – physically close, can make us look inhuman. When you begin to question your own humanity, examine the quality and quantity of that person’s interest in you, your feelings, and your goals.
The upside-down family
Family therapists have pointed out that unhealthy families operate in an upside-down fashion. Instead of taking care of the emotional needs of the children, the parents use the children for their own emotional needs. In an unhealthy family, the parents behave like dependent children, sabotage independence, and seek ways to keep the children dependent.
In short, the parents never emotionally grew up. The parents try to get the children to parent them emotionally. They don’t hesitate to use empathy to control the children, just as a con artist uses empathy to fleece unsuspecting victims of a ruse.
Abandonment depression can feel like a huge hole inside. Parents with abandonment depression typically use their children to fill that hole. And, since the children are used to keep the parents from feeling empty, the children do not get their emotional needs met, do not learn to deal with feelings, and do not fully mature. At least, not without therapy — usually, long term therapy.
A book I recommend on this subject is “Search for the Real Self” by James Masterson M.D.,
Emotional abandonment leads to coming apart
Thus, this whole issue of coming apart is an issue involving abandonment. When we have been emotionally abandoned – or even close to emotionally abandoned – we don’t have enough built in. When we try to do what is in our own best interest, we tend to come apart. What is in our own best interest may stretch the umbilical cord to the breaking point.
And, since we come from families which don’t provide built-in support for mature behavior, we may not have the built-in resources for steps that involve grown-up behavior, such as getting on an airplane, or even making a decision about getting on an airplane.
We were emotionally abandoned if we do not have built in resources
We can love our parents all we want to. But the fact remains. If we do not have built-in resources to make decisions which are in our best interest and then carry them out without high anxiety and panic, we were subjected to emotional abandonment. As children, our need to establish built-in resources was not met.
This points us right back to why the Strengthening Exercise prevents panic. When coming apart is prevented, flying becomes OK. The Strengthening Exercise keeps us from coming apart by building in psychological connections that carry us when physical connections are not possible. We establish a link between each moment of the flight with a moment in which we experienced a good connection with another person.
Does it help in other areas of life and not just flying?
Yes, it does. We can control high anxiety and panic when flying with the Strengthening Exercise, and many people find that what they learn in the SOAR Program is helpful in others areas, particularly in other anxiety-producing situations. But what has developed in ones family over years needs to be addressed over months, if not years, in therapy with a qualified therapist.